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Newsukdesign

Lockdown lessons, losses, and gains

A personal lockdown story — from relocating (pre-pandemic) whilst between gigs, to starting a new perm role completely remotely, with some challenges and surprises along the way.

Last things first…

Before I jump into my experience of working in lockdown(s), I wanted to add a note to say that I’m aware that being in the very fortunate position to have had almost constant full-time work during the global pandemic is something I am very grateful for. I’m conscious that this is not the case for countless others — being able to make a living in the creative industry is one I don’t take for granted generally.

Thank you to those people who do what my dad used to call “proper jobs”, which makes it possible for people like myself to work from home during this pandemic safely and in comfort.

Into the unknown

My wife and I made the decision to leave London a long time ago. Mostly because we would never be able to afford to put down roots in the capital (anyone who has ever lived there will know how ridiculously expensive it can be, even if you live in a shoebox). I personally have always lived in a big city, so have longed to live amongst more open green spaces. It was hard to make this leap without considering the impact on job opportunities and income.

We finally decided the time was right, a decision that was affirmed when my wife landed a fantastic new job in Bristol. I didn’t love my job in London, so I wasn’t too fussed about leaving it. We packed up and waved goodbye to the capital.

I was busy unpacking and working on drumming up some work, while I set about looking for something more permanent in and around the southwest. Then I got a call that I was dreading, and that put a stop to everything.

The world stopped

My dad sadly passed away after a rather lengthy illness, around the time he should have been retiring and enjoying the fruits of his labor (literally in his case — he was a pot bank warehouse worker, and broke his back to give me the opportunity to pursue anything I wanted).

Obviously, everything went out the window. I couldn’t have cared less about my new temporary home. Work or anything remotely creative was the last thing on my mind. I had to leave my ever-supportive partner behind, alone in a new city and starting a new job, to move back home to be with my mum, and help her sort out what needed to be done there.

It was one of the hardest times of my life. Two months later, I was back in Bristol — a real mess and living on the savings earmarked for our future.

I very slowly recovered, but in the meantime, our financial situation had reached the point where it was simply untenable. It was time to start the job search anew.

Slowly finding my feet again

The work I was doing whilst contracting at that time probably wasn’t my best. I was absent-minded most of the time, and basically producing stuff on auto-pilot remotely. I was also busy polishing my portfolio and touting for new jobs to give me some semblance of financial security. Although I knew I wasn’t really ready, circumstances meant I had little choice in the matter.

The world stopped (again)

March 2020 — the UK went into its first lockdown. Now the panic I was feeling really started setting in (I’m sure not just for me, but for everyone). My contract work was almost wrapping up, and the prospect of now finding a good permanent role in a new unfamiliar city seemed way more daunting.

It took some time for things to settle in the country, and for us to get used to the idea of being locked up inside for an indeterminate period of time. I also had to learn to be patient with the design job market — it needed some time to catch up to what was happening in the world, but I started to see more companies willing to interview candidates that may be located remotely.

I interviewed for roles that were based in and around the southwest — but also ones that were normally based elsewhere. Some of these remote roles were international, but some were based in the very place we had recently left — London. I managed to secure a pretty decent job offer with a Bristol-based energy company after sifting through the masses of recruiter emails and trawling LinkedIn dead-ends.

Then, one of the more promising roles I’d applied for had got back to me — and it sounded perfect. An opportunity to work with the News UK design team, solely on a design system again. Of course, the office was in London.

I needn’t have worried. After making my reasons for moving away and my long-term plans to stay in the southwest clear from the outset, I was zipped through the interview process and was promptly offered the job!

We were absolutely delighted — finally, a glimmer of something positive after thinking we had made the biggest mistake of our lives in leaving London. I was now a remote Londoner.

Beginning a new chapter

Starting a new job remotely was somewhat of an unknown challenge. News UK covered what I practically needed in terms of hardware, software and helped me to get set up and settled, but it was still odd to never have actually met anyone I would be working with face-to-face.

I quickly got used to the new ritual of trying to make myself semi-presentable for video calls — making a conscious effort to turn my camera on as much as possible, so people could put a face to a disembodied voice, and so I could try to form bonds with the people I was working with.

Video calls, shared documents, and of course Slack made it possible to onboard and make start working on the design system. But there was something missing. I was used to working in Sketch (paired with Abstract for managing branches/commits). However, it’s simply not designed to do what we needed it to do, and having effective tooling (especially now), made it more apparent than ever that it just wasn’t fit for purpose.

Enter Figma

The wider News UK design team made the decision to migrate from our previous stack — for our team that works on the UI kits as part of the design system work, and also for those designers from different titles that use the design system as part of their workflow.

Since adoption, Figma has improved collaboration, the way shared libraries work, and the overall speed of working across the board. It wasn’t just a tooling upgrade either — our ways of working and best practices have also been refreshed as a result of the migration. We have rebuilt everything from the ground up to leverage the possibilities of Figma (such as variants).

The present-day & looking to the future

We are now at the point where all of the designers across the News UK business are all using the same tool, with more adoption of NewsKit (our multi-themable design system) as a result. I’m excited to see the new features coming that will ultimately allow us to get closer with our codebase, continue to add more complex components to our libraries while retaining the scalability and usability of the system for everyone who uses it.

On a more personal note, I must say that things do get easier with time, albeit slowly. I’m super thankful to be working with an excellent team, learning a lot, and lucky enough to really enjoy what I do every day — all from my new home in the green North Somerset countryside. I like to think my dad would be happy for us.

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Designing product experiences for The Times & The Sunday Times, The Sun and Wireless

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Mike Messina

Mike Messina

Senior UX Designer at News UK, working on the NewsKit Design System — https://www.newskit.co.uk/

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